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  • Krakow, Poland

    Boarding the train headed for Krakow, Joy dragged as much of my stuff as she could, as well as, her own backpack. Climbing the steps onto the train, we realized this would be a much different ride. The train was packed, literally, with people. We attempted to walk anywhere to find a place to sit. With our luggage against the wall of the small walkway, we stood, as much out of the way that we could. I am very claustrophobic, so this was no easy task for me to withstand.

    It wasn't long before we met a young woman returning to the University in Krakow who spoke English. She proceeded to tell us that the train was full of students doing the same as she was: returning to school. The next hour was spent listening to her tell of how the youth of Poland had aspirations of the future and capitalism, while her parents wanted to return to Communism, just so they could have some security with any income, regardless of how meager it might be. Incentive and vision of opportunity for a better quality of life, was not the issue for her parent’s generation. It was security and the familiar. Saddened by what she said was only heightened for me after having stood in Red Square just ten years earlier, right after Perestroika. I saw no life in the eyes of the Russian people, having lived under a Communist regime for over seventy years at that time. Recognition of that same look was reflected in the faces I had already seen in The Czech Republic a day earlier. Now, I began to pay attention to those around me. Many had that same blank glare in their eyes. She made the trip bearable, intriguing, and unforgettable.

    Arriving at the train station in Krakow, we now were on a mission to find our hotel. Within walking distance, Joy and I headed down the main street in Krakow. Such different architecture, beautiful, old, inspiring. I photographed the images in my mind where they remain to this day. After settling into our modest room, we set out to find sustenance. Asking the front desk clerk about where we might find something to eat, he offered several suggestions. Joy and I found ourselves sitting in a restaurant on the square in Krakow, Poland, eating pizza. That was a bit of comic relief, in what otherwise, had been a day filled with drama.

    Waking early enough to have toast and tea, we set out to our ultimate destination, the infamous death camp known as Auschwitz. It was a beautiful fall day. The sky was as blue as I have ever seen. As we came to entrance of the camp, that moment was as surreal as any I have experienced. Bright yellow leaves were strewn in our path, as though inviting us to a place of beauty. The reality of what we were about to take in was quite a contrast to this invitation. Walking under the brick arch, the first thing I noticed was the gallows, where people, countless people, had hung. A shudder ran through me and it would not be the last, but the first of many. The gentle breeze caused the yellow leaves to flutter like butterflies, as we passed the housing for the many Jews brought to the camp, a few for work and many for death.

    Our guide began to enter one structure at a time which had housed the many people who were victims of the Holocaust, carried out by Third Reich, or Hitler's ultimate plan for a "pure race." As we entered one, and then another, of the quarters, reverence is the only word I can use to describe those who entered along with Joy and me. Each unit was a sublime, yet a gruesome reminder, of just what had taken place during the Reich's rule. The best description I can offer is that one half of the 30 x 50 foot area of the single room, was covered with some kind of acrylic that went from the floor to the ceiling at a 45* angle. Behind the clear acrylic, was filled with articles taken from those thousands, millions, who had once lived lives of beauty and freedom. In silence, we stood viewing millions of shoes in one building. In silence, we stood viewing millions of locks of hair in another building. In silence, we stood viewing millions of watches, in yet another building. In silence we stood viewing millions of... and so it went. In silence, tears streamed down my cheeks. One of the most sobering experiences of my life.

    After exiting the last of the units, we headed for the berm, which housed the gas chamber and the ovens. Covered with green grass and daisies, once again, the surrealistic picture was quickly interrupted as we abruptly entered the gas chamber, where millions had been gassed. Again, silence was the only sound. Reverence and homage was the only palpable sense among those who had ventured into the Chamber. Standing for a few, or many minutes, we then proceeded into where the ovens were located. Chills run down my spine as I recall the brick that had burned those precious bodies of many. There are no words in the English language to describe what I saw, and how I felt. Horror is the single word that comes to mind. The extermination camp known as Auschwitz, had revealed itself to this one person, with a lasting impression of what bigotry, hatred, scorn and loathing is capable of producing. Death. Tortuous death, after having their last days lived under a tortuous regime.

    As if that scene was not enough, we boarded the bus that took us to Birkenau. Stark in contrast to the brilliance of the yellow- leafed path that lead us into the camp at Auschwitz, the guard tower, built to represent the one that stood in the same position at the time of the heinous rule of the Third Reich, symbolized power and control. Walking under a simple wooden beam, the most striking image forever embedded in my mind was the shear vastness of landmass that was, the death camp of Birkenau. Historically, the Germans, learning that the Russians were quickly making their way towards the camp, began to burn what they could of the evidence of their crimes. Unable to finish their attempt to cover what had taken place, in a place and space in time, reserved only for the torture and murder of millions of Jews, the Russians proceeded to burn what was remaining of Birkenau.

    The only structure on the hundreds of acres of land known as Birkenau, was a replica of what the housing had been for the prisoners. Stark, cold, devoid of color, is the image I recall as I entered the unit. Unlike Auschwitz, these units were very large, capable of housing hundreds of people at a time. I would not be so pretentious to act as any kind of historian, but I know enough in regard as to the conditions the prisoners "lived" in day to day. Filth, disease, and hunger were but a few of the adjectives I've read that describe what that building represented.

    Lastly, before boarding the bus back to Krakow, we stood in the guard tower, looking over the immensity and emptiness that, had once, been a bigger version of what we had seen at Auschwitz. "They" say the skies were always raining soot from the ovens that burned every hour of every day for years. Heaviness and weight were what I felt, inside, and an oppressiveness was lingering in the fall air on the outside. The memory has had as much impact on me as any memory of a moment in my life. Sobering the thought of the depravity of man at its worst.

    Leaving was a relief. The next day, we boarded the train that would traverse from Poland, The Czech Republic, Austria and back to Switzerland. Joy returned to the safety net of L'Abri, filled with her young, but astute, observations made of our journey across four countries, each filled with their own unique flavor and memories. As I drove away, she waved from her tiny chalet. I knew she had grown as a woman, making this mother proud for what she was doing at such a young age: Searching for Truth.

    The drive around Lake Lucerne, seemed much more beautiful this time. I felt lighter and heavier at the same time, full of the knowledge of good and evil, the very thing God attempted to shield us from in the Garden of Eden. Enriched with the experience of the journey and the destination, had been a small chapter in what I now know as my life.

    sarah beaugez_krakow, poland_(c)2013
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